In the era of Paw Patrol and My Little Pony, stickers and finger paints, getting my daughters to pay attention to more spiritual matters is an uphill battle. Truth be told, I know how they feel. Religion and scripture can seem scary and boring to someone who doesn’t fully understand what it’s all about. And that’s why I bribe my kids to learn about Ramadan — and I don’t feel guilty about it one bit.
I remember learning to read the Quran when I was 7. My parents hired a humorless teacher who came to our house every Wednesday evening on a rickety bicycle. He had a graying beard, a balding head, and circular gold glasses (which would, ironically, be considered quite fashionable nowadays). I read the Quran with him every week for two years, and I can confidently say I never once saw him smile. He terrified me. I remember faking a stomachache on many occasions just so I could get out of the lesson.
He didn’t really care whether I enjoyed the teachings or whether I understood anything I read. He only cared how quickly I turned the pages and whether my pronunciation was correct. He cared whether my head was properly covered with my headscarf and whether I was sitting up straight enough. This was just how scripture was taught at the time: Everyone else in my extended family earned it the same way. Somehow, this was the norm.
Today, my family is not super-religious by any means — on either side of the family tree — but we do value knowledge. My husband, who is Catholic, and I, a Muslim, want our daughters to know and love both religions they are part of.
I want my children’s religious education to be very different from the one I had. I don’t want my girls to think of religion as terrifying. I don’t want them to dread reading the Quran or the Bible (which I will encourage them to do when they are older). I don’t want them to think of this kind of spiritual exploration as a chore. I want it to be something they want to do.
I want my daughters, who are now 4 and 2, to think of religion as something they can turn to whenever they feel they need it. When my kids get depressed, or happy, or lonely, or excited — I want them to know that religion will embrace them.
So how do I get my daughters to be excited about learning their faiths? I bribe them. And no, I’m not ashamed of it.
Ramadan is fast approaching; it starts May 5 this year. To prepare, I’m working on my invented Ramadan calendar. That’s right: I co-opted the Christmas advent calendar concept and transformed it into my family’s own Ramadan tutorial/bribery center.
During every day of Ramadan, my daughters open up a little bag that contains their lesson of the day. This includes reading a chapter from a children’s book with stories from the Quran. It’s filled with bright pictures that describe what’s happening, and it keeps them engaged. They also have an activity each day, which includes doing things like coloring a picture from their Ramadan coloring book, or making Eid Mubarak cards for their grandparents. Sometimes we go on outings to donate toys or food to local organizations who help those in need.
And how do I make sure all of these important lessons get learned? I lure my daughters with the currency they know and love: chocolate chips.
Last year, they were so excited to run into the family room each morning and see what was in that day’s bag. The first couple of days, they just wanted the chocolate chips and didn’t really care what the activity was. But as the month went on, they started paying more and more attention. They still gobbled up their prize, but they also enthusiastically participated in the activities.
And after Ramadan was over? They were actually sad. I was shocked; they kept asking for the “Ramadan baggies” for the next few weeks, excited to see what else they might find. I had to explain they’d need to wait until next year for this particular adventure to repeat itself.
But even more important than their excitement was the fact that they learned something new each day during Ramadan. They learned stories and prayers about one of their faiths. They paid attention to the season. They realized this is a special time, and they were filled with excitement and wonder each morning of those 30 days.
And in 10, 20, or 30 years, I hope my daughters will still hold that same enthusiasm. Instead of the dread I had in my heart when I was learning to read the Quran, I hope they will have a sense of love, hope, and peace. If it takes a few baggies of chocolate chips to get there, so be it.